A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith
US, 1943

“But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”

“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.

“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”

“What is beauty?” asked the child.

“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.'”

Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”

“Nonsense!” exploded Miss Garnder. Then, softening her tone, she continued: “By truth, we mean things like the stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anti-climatically.

Chapter 39

I didn’t need to know that Betty Smith started her 1943 classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a memoir before fictionalizing it to feel that this scene late in the novel between protagonist Francie Nolan and her 8th grade English teacher was drawn from Smith’s own life. It has the ring of a bitter personal experience, and the novel itself becomes the refutation, bringing vividly to life characters and neighborhood that Miss Garnder considers “sordid” but told in a manner and style that while not shirking from the difficulties of poverty and alcoholism in early 20th century Brooklyn, still manages a certain gentleness in the telling.

I suspect this is because the novel is from Francie’s point of view. It opens when she is 11 and moves back in forth in time, from when her parents are dating to when she is grown and leaving home. And while an adult Francie may recognize just how tough life was for the child, and for her mother, to the child of 11, rounding up scrap for the junk man to earn a few pennies for candy, everything in life is still an adventure to be discovered. She will grow to recognize that the world does not always see her life as she does–where she sees how loving and talented her father is, the world sees him as a good-for-nothing drunk; where her aunt is condemned for her “fast” ways, she sees a woman capable of great kindness and motherly love. This contrasting of views and Francie’s growing awareness of how others see her and her family contribute to what feels a very realistic portrait of a second-generation Irish-American family.

In her Hudson Review essay, “The Hungry Artist: Rereading Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (helpfully pointed out by Amateur Reader(Tom)), Joyce Zonana posits that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn hasn’t received more scholarly notice in part because it deals with female hungers (literal and metaphorical), but I can’t help but wonder if the gentleness I feel reading it is a contributing factor. Although we know–depending on the quality of our imaginations and emphathies, can perhaps even feel–that the Nolans are poor, that they are starving, the visceralness of this reality is tempered by its coating, sandwiched between genuine loving moments between family members, games Katie Nolan makes up to distract her children from their hunger, and nostalgia-tinged descriptions of neighborhood customs and events. This all contributes to the realism and honesty of the novel, but without turning it into an “issue” novel that might get more press.

By turns moving or amusing, lighthearted or heartbreaking, innocent or dark, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not a heavily plotted novel, though many things occur. It is a bildungsroman and a series of vignettes that make up a life. That Francie’s life will turn out better than her parents we can but hope, with her mother and grandmother, though we can never be assured. The events in her life and those of her neighbors and relatives make it only too plain that only one wrong turn–a poor decision or an unlucky stroke–can make everything wrong. On the other hand, the opportunities made available to Francie and her brother Neeley thanks to their mother’s insistence on their education–which in the 1910s means even just graduating from grammar school (8th grade), make clear that the possibilities are so much more open to the young generation than their parents or grandparents ever had. It is a vision of the American Dream, not that the child will be the leader of the land, but that the will–and can–do better than the parent.

It did feel as if the ending was a bit rushed. Perhaps this is reflective of life–Francie notes when she turns twelve, that all of a sudden things like Christmas, that once seemed so far away now really do seem to be just around the corner. But it felt more as if as Francie grew older Smith could no longer find much of interest–the adventures of imagining and childhood are behind–and felt the need to quickly wrap up a somewhat lengthy book. This is a minor quibble, though, in what was otherwise an excellent start to my reading year.

This title qualifies as a book by a woman for Back to the Classics 2022.